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January 5, 2012

The Link Between Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

From Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, to Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and Francis Ford Coppola, many of the world's most notable artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers have been affected by bipolar disorder suggesting a virtually inextricable link between the illness and creativity. Certain aspects of bipolar disorder's diverse emotional states may lead to heightened creativity. For example, rapid thinking, increased energy, optimism and euphoria characterize mania, while depression may result in intense ponderings of self and life, and a powerful need for self-expression. The differences between these states of mania and depression are often dramatically apparent, as illustrated in the works of author Sylvia Plath, whose tone varied from lively and hopeful, to lonely and despondent. Painter Vincent Van Gogh also struggled between periods of high energy and deep depression, leaving a body of work that reflects his diverse moods. Biographers note the artist worked with "great speed and intensity, determined to capture an effect or mood while it possessed him." And English author Virginia Woolf was vivacious, productive and witty when not depressed. But a letter written by Woolf notes, "My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery, always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, then buried in mud." Plath, Van Gogh and Woolf all committed suicide, which strengthens the caution of over romanticizing the link between bipolar disorder and creativity. However, studies suggest a highly disproportionate number of artists and writers are depressed, manic or suicidal. A number of recent studies also suggest that people who are extremely creative may be more likely to be bipolar. Researchers at Harvard University studied the degree of original thinking in performing creative tasks among both the general population and a sample of participants with bipolar disorder. The bipolar participants showed the greatest percentage of creativity. In another study, at Stanford University, researchers found that artists' personality and temperament are more similar to those with bipolar disorder than participants from the general population. Stanford researchers also compared creativity scores of bipolar children, bipolar parents and children of bipolar parents with general populations. Creativity scores of the bipolar groups were significantly higher in each case, suggesting creativeness may be stronger in families with a genetic susceptibility for the illness. Experts also say other factors may predispose a person to bipolar disorder and creativity, such as heightened levels of sensitivity, awareness and resourcefulness, and an openness to explore, experiment and take risks, all of which may lead to different ways of seeing the world. If you or someone you know is affected by bipolar disorder, please see a mental health professional. You can find more videos about bipolar disorder on this site.

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Last Updated:
December 20, 2012